Why Presidential Speeches Are Getting "Dumber"

January 13, 2020

Have you ever wondered if presidential speeches are getting dumber? Cheddar explains why the reading level of presidential speeches is declining.


Female_1: This is the first sentence of

Female_1: George Washington's first inaugural address,

Female_1: "Among the vicissitudes incident to life,

Female_1: no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than

Female_1: that of which the notification was

Female_1: transmitted by your order,

Female_1: and received on the 14th day of the present month."

Female_1: Washington's speech was at

Female_1: a college reading level grade 20.

Female_1: Fast forward 220 years,

Female_1: and Obama's inaugural address was

Female_1: the reading level of a high school freshman.

Female_1: Trump's inaugural address eight years later

Female_1: was at a middle school reading level.

Female_1: And here is the reading level of

Female_1: every president in between,

Female_1: talk about a downward trend.

Female_1: It's because of something that happened here.

Female_1: [MUSIC] There is no mention

Female_1: of the State of the Union or

Female_1: the inaugural address in the Constitution,

Female_1: but George Washington made speeches for both anyway.

Female_1: Of course, he was just addressing Congress,

Female_1: which was around 80 of

Female_1: his fellow rich white male friends.

Female_1: [MUSIC] The Flesch-Kincald Reading Ease

Female_1: formula ranks it as one of

Female_1: the most difficult speeches in American history.

Female_1: It's what researchers used to rank

Female_1: the difficulty of all of these speeches.

Female_1: The formula was originally developed by the US Navy in

Female_1: the 1970s to determine

Female_1: how clear military instruction manuals were.

Female_1: It measured two variables: the amount of

Female_1: syllables in a word and the

Female_1: number of words in a sentence.

Female_1: So a blurb like: Cheddar is a cool company.

Female_1: We make fun videos.

Female_1: Sometimes they're for learning.

Female_1: They're for an online website called YouTube.

Female_1: We also have two TV channels.

Female_1: It's fun to see our YouTube videos on TV.

Female_1: Then our parents actually think that we have jobs.

Female_1: Has a Flesch-Kincald Reading Ease score of 82,

Female_1: making it a fourth grade reading level.

Female_1: And a blurb like this: At Cheddar,

Female_1: we make engaging and informative video content for

Female_1: YouTube viewers that want answers

Female_1: to questions they never realized they had.

Female_1: Cheddar posts these informative and enlightening videos

Female_1: on a digital platform called YouTube.

Female_1: The explanatory videos are also

Female_1: broadcasted on Cheddar's two cable TV channels.

Female_1: It's fulfilling and exhilarating

Female_1: to see our content shared on cable news.

Female_1: Has a Flesch Reading Ease score of 45,

Female_1: making it an 11th grade reading level.

Female_1: As you can see or hear,

Female_1: this scale is just based

Female_1: on syllables and sentence length,

Female_1: not the ideas actually being conveyed,

Female_1: which are the same in both of these blurbs.

Female_1: But it's a good indicator of

Female_1: how difficult presidential speeches are.

Female_1: But you might be thinking,

Female_1: Ali, that's not very scientific method of you.

Female_1: What about the content of these speeches?

Female_1: And you'd be right, which is why we're going to look at

Female_1: a top 15 words mentioned in

Female_1: speeches by every president since Eisenhower.

Female_1: Let's get that out onto a graph.

Female_1: Nice. Now that we've got that laid out,

Female_1: let's look at the differences between these lists.

Female_1: LBJ and Nixon, both talk about Vietnam.

Female_1: Carter and Reagan, have mentions of

Female_1: the Soviet Union and nuclear fears.

Female_1: Bush and his son,

Female_1: both have Saddam on their lists.

Female_1: Variations of the word Iraq or ISIS,

Female_1: also show up on Obama and Trump's list.

FEMALE_1: But besides these periods specific issues,

FEMALE_1: the topics are pretty similar.

FEMALE_1: Themes like the economy, party lines,

FEMALE_1: health, and energy show up again and again.

FEMALE_1: Mentions of political opponents,

FEMALE_1: and the president's loved ones also show up frequently.

FEMALE_1: The similarities vastly outweigh the differences.

FEMALE_1: So we know that while rhetorical difficulty has declined,

FEMALE_1: the topics have remained somewhat similar.

FEMALE_1: What gives? We can trace it

FEMALE_1: back to a rhetorical drop off in the 1920s.

FEMALE_1: This dip right here.

FEMALE_1: But what actually caused the decline?

FEMALE_1: There were three big shifts in

FEMALE_1: our democracy that caused not the politicians,

FEMALE_1: but the constituents to change.

FEMALE_1: The first big change to the voting population took

FEMALE_1: place in 1913 with the passing of the 17th Amendment.

FEMALE_1: It allowed for the direct election of senators.

FEMALE_1: Previously, senators had been

FEMALE_1: elected by the state legislatures.

FEMALE_1: It was changed because there were

FEMALE_1: some significant problems with that process.

FEMALE_1: State legislatures would become deadlocked for months,

FEMALE_1: leading to senate vacancies.

FEMALE_1: In other cases, political machines

FEMALE_1: would gain control over the state legislatures,

FEMALE_1: and the elected senators were considered their

FEMALE_1: puppets according to Brown University's political review.

FEMALE_1: The second was in 1920.

FEMALE_1: The 19th Amendment was passed,

FEMALE_1: giving women the right to vote.

FEMALE_1: I don't think I need to explain

FEMALE_1: what was going on previously.

FEMALE_1: The third was a country wide shift

FEMALE_1: towards more and better public education.

FEMALE_1: More young Americans became

FEMALE_1: involved in politics than ever before.

FEMALE_1: But with these three changes and the advent of the radio,

FEMALE_1: presidents now had to speak to

FEMALE_1: people they never addressed before.

FEMALE_1: People who didn't know or care

FEMALE_1: how high society their speeches sounded.

FEMALE_1: They wanted someone who sounded like them

FEMALE_1: and they weren't talking with

FEMALE_1: college level rhetoric in day to day life.

FEMALE_1: There has been a lot more change in

FEMALE_1: the past five years than just getting a new president.

FEMALE_1: In fact, the entire way we consume

FEMALE_1: news and media has changed from

FEMALE_1: cable TV and newspapers to YouTube smash

FEMALE_1: highlights and politicians duking it out on Twitter.

FEMALE_1: Like in the 1920s,

FEMALE_1: politics is facing a radical shift towards

FEMALE_1: being even more in line

FEMALE_1: with average American communication.

FEMALE_1: You can e-mail or tweet any politician at any time,

FEMALE_1: and they're pretty likely to see it.

FEMALE_1: That means that politicians communications are trying to

FEMALE_1: be as accessible to the general population as possible.

FEMALE_1: It's a contributing factor as to why

FEMALE_1: rhetoric has taken a nosedive.

FEMALE_1: Things are changing rapidly.

FEMALE_1: But is this tide of change a good thing or a bad thing?

FEMALE_1: We'll let you decide.

FEMALE_1: Let us know in the comments what

FEMALE_1: you think of the downward slide of

FEMALE_1: presidential rhetoric and

FEMALE_1: the upward trajectory of understanding.